Pragmatic Plasma Art from Aaron Ristau

The Colorado neon sculptor provides electrified positivity to Meow Wolf’s Las Vegas experience, Omega Mart

Aaron Ristau, luminaria sculpture artist, created one of a kind plasma art light sculptures for Omega Mart, Meow Wolf’s Las Vegas exhibit that he co-credits to Nicholas McCracken, aka Tesla Explorer.

The plasma and neon artist Aaron Ristau with a light sculpture. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Having made lights since 1988, Ristau is a humble expert when it comes to both neon and plasma art lighting (in his own words, plasma art is “where you're taking a lot of the neon sign world technologies and essentially just complicate it with torches, timing techniques, connectivity, electricity, or ovens”). His installation pops up outside the “store” portion of Omega Mart the exhibit, in one of the adjacent worlds visitors will find themselves in.

Apropos that Ristau created plasma art for Omega Mart in Las Vegas, a city known for its neon. The history of Las Vegas can be written with the retired neon lights – many of those preserved in time at the Neon Museum

An inside the studio sneak peek of the artists' Meow Wolf installation. Photo courtesy of the artist Aaron Ristau.

Looking at a neon sign, it might seem straightforward. A lamp. But that lamp had to be hand-blown and then filled with various gases, like Neon, Xenon, krypton, and nitrogen, at low pressure, and then electrified. It’s dizzyingly complex in its materialization. 

Neon light work is a dying art, due to high labor costs, rapidly advancing technologies, and of course, the birth of LED lighting. Ristau speaks of how laborious even getting the equipment together to be able to craft his install was.  

“To me, light is very positive and inspiring. So there's a play component there, too. I like it when I feel like my lamps are doing something playful,” says Ristau.

An earlier work, "Pay Me More," made in collaboration with Dina Kalahar. Photo courtesy of the artist Aaron Ristau.

His installation includes spiral glass and layered tubing to hold different colors and textures, “I wanted to make it look like a new animation – it didn't just light but gave motion to the light.” He achieved that element of play with a mix of bulbous and spiraling shapes and tweaking his gas recipes to get the color and brightness just right.

Ristau apprenticed for many years with Tony Greer out of Lubbock, Texas before he could both handle and afford to go it alone. “Originally, I was taking common light bulbs and encasing them and all kinds of things just going, Geez, it'd be a lot more fun if this light bulb itself were more sculptural.” That was the “acceleration of desire to figure out more sculptural luminary,” he says.

He attributes his longtime success to early encouragement from the art community where he honed his craft in Marfa, Texas, “That was a real important place to get courage as a young artisan and make a name for me from the beginning and have some great times.” 

An earlier work, "A flowering of hope", in collaboration with Dina Kalahar. Photo courtesy of the artist Aaron Ristau.

However, having grown up in a family of artists and with children of his own, he maintains that he prefers having a day job to working as a full-time artist. He currently lives in Loveland, CO, where he works as an ultrasound repair technician. He’s previously worked in ceramics and even dabbled in gunsmithery. But, he’s also still tinkering with neon and lamps, giving light to gases that play inside twisting tubes and bent beakers re-invoking the dance of a (somewhat) dying art – proving you still can capture magic in a bottle.   

Find more of Aaron Ristau’s work on Instagram or on his website

Meow Wolf opens Omega Mart in early 2021.